Photo-Illustration by Max-O-Matic
The Insurmountable Trust Deficit
The fundamental bedrock of human development is the formation of a capacity to trust, absorbed by children between birth and 18 months. Donald Trump has boasted of his total lack of trust: “People are too trusting. I’m a very untrusting guy.” “Hire the best people and don’t trust them.” “The world is a vicious and brutal place. Even your friends are out to get you. They want your job, your money, your wife.”
His biographers have recorded his worldview as saturated with a sense of danger and his need to project total toughness. As we know, his father trained him to be a “killer,” the only alternative to being a “loser.” Trump has never forgotten the primary lesson he learned from his father and at the military school to which he was sent to be toughened up further. In Trump’s words, “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.”
As president, Trump is systematically shredding trust in the institutions he now commands. In the nearly two years that Trump has been in our face almost daily, he has sown mistrust in all his Republican rivals, alienated much of the conservative Republican bloc he needs in the House for legislative success, ignored congressional Democrats and viciously insulted Democratic leaders, calling them liars, clowns, stupid and incompetent, and condemning former President Barack Obama as “sick” and Hillary Clinton as “the devil.” Having discredited the entire 17-agency intelligence community as acting like Nazis, he also dismissed the judiciary because of one judge’s Hispanic background and another’s opposition to his travel [née Muslim] ban. Even his Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, said it was “disheartening” and “demoralizing” to hear Trump disparage the judiciary. Not content to smear the media on a daily basis, Trump borrowed a phrase used by Lenin and Stalin to brand the American media as an “enemy of the people.”
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The nonmedical definition of paranoia is the tendency toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others. By his own words, Trump operates on the assumption that everyone is out to get him.
We hear repeatedly that Trump as a manager likes chaos. I asked a deputy White House counsel under Obama, a decorated former officer in Iraq and former White House counsel to Obama, how such a management style impacts trust. “Trump explicitly or implicitly manages the situation so it’s never possible for his advisers to know where they stand,” he said. “It’s the opposite of what you want in a high-functioning organization.”
To the dismay of even conservative observers, Trump appears totally indifferent to the truth. Time gave Trump an opportunity to clarify his refusal to correct his long string of falsehoods. What the interview produced instead was an astonishing revelation of his thinking: He states what he wants to be true. If his statement is proved false, he is unfazed and confidently predicts that the facts will catch up with his belief: “I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right.”
Beneath the grandiose behavior of every narcissist lies the pit of fragile self-esteem. What if, deep down, the person whom Trump trusts least is himself? The humiliation of being widely exposed as a “loser,” unable to bully through the actions he promised during the campaign, could drive him to prove he is, after all, a “killer.”
Gail Sheehy is an author, journalist and popular lecturer.